Heroin Addiction Signs & Symptoms

Heroin Addiction Signs & Symptoms

Authored by Defining Wellness    Reviewed by Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis    Last Updated: November 1st, 2021


Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis Medical Reviewer
Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

Results from the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that 62,000 people between the ages of 18 and 25 had a heroin use disorder in the past year. Heroin is a highly addictive illegal opiate drug that continues to cause addiction in men and women in the U.S. Family members and loved ones are also affected by extension, although spotting the signs of addiction may not always be straightforward. You may be able to tell people have a heroin addiction if you pay close attention to things such as their behavior, surroundings, physical appearance, and lifestyle habits.

What Is Heroin Addiction?

Heroin is a popular street drug that goes by other names such as Smack, H, Hell Dust, and China White. The drug has no medical use and has a high potential for abuse and dependence. In fact, it is so potent that it can lead to addiction after the first use compared to cocaine and marijuana.

You’re classified as being addicted if you lose control over your drug use, and you’re unable to quit on your own. You will also usually develop uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms if you try to kick the habit.

Another hallmark sign of heroin addiction is the compulsive seeking and using of heroin while disregarding the health, financial, social, and legal consequences. That’s because the substance affects brain function and rational decision-making. The opioid receptors in the brain also remain activated, leading to frequent and uncontrollable drug cravings. You will desire a larger amount of heroin to feel the same level of high as your tolerance level goes up for the substance.

It’s important to note here that heroin addiction is a mental disorder that does not get better on its own and usually requires professional treatment in a rehabilitation setting. If not treated early, it can spiral out of control and put you at risk of an accidental overdose.

What Does Heroin Look Like?

Knowing what heroin looks like will help you identify if those abusing the drug have it in their possession or somewhere in the home. The opiate has an off-white color, but it can be dark brown to black depending on the type of chemical substances used to cut it. The drug appears as a fine white powder in its purest form. Sometimes it looks off-white and crumbly.

Those who make the drug often cut it with substances such as strychnine to get larger quantities and increase its potency levels. What makes heroin particularly dangerous is street users do not usually know how potent it is, which can cause them to accidentally take a lethal dose. Furthermore, combining the opioid with alcohol or other drugs increases its effects and the risk of overdose.

Methods of Heroin Use

People who use heroin typically start by smoking or snorting the drug. More seasoned users and those who are heavily physically dependent on the drug tend to inject it into their veins. People usually get “high” regardless of the method used. However, injecting the opiate into the vein creates a faster and more powerful high. It’s a dangerous practice as it causes the blood vessels and heart to overwork and can trigger a heart attack. Intravenous use is also a leading cause of overdose.

Signs and Symptoms of Heroin Addiction

People who abuse drugs are usually secretive about it and may go out of their way to hide the habit. In fact, they may be aware of their drug-use habit but may be unaware of their addiction. Despite this, they may display physical, behavioral, psychological, and cognitive signs and symptoms of heroin abuse. These may vary depending on the severity of the addiction.

Physical Symptoms

The physical symptoms of heroin use occur rapidly and usually within seconds if it was taken via a vein. Once users get into a state of euphoria, they tend to become more social, talkative, and uninhibited. Euphoria is a rush of pleasurable sensations felt when the drug binds the opioid receptors in the brain.

The following are other physical signs that may appear at different times from immediately to hours after using:

• Tiny pupils (when high)
• Dry mouth
• Severe drowsiness or falling asleep suddenly
• Flushed skin
• Slowed breathing or heart palpitations
• Slurred speech
• Itchiness
• Puffiness or dark circles around the eyes
• Large pupils (when withdrawing)
• Withdrawal symptoms such as nausea or vomiting
• Weight loss
• Constipation

Heroin withdrawal symptoms may begin if too much time has passed since the last dose, usually four to six hours after the last dose.

Other Physical Signs

You may develop a hacking cough or show burn marks on your mouth or fingers if you smoked the drug. Runny nose and nosebleeds are common symptoms seen in those who snort heroin. If injected, there will likely be track marks on the arms caused by the needle. Abscesses, infection, or scarring may be seen around the injection site, or the veins may appear collapsed.

Behavioral Symptoms

You may notice certain changes in behavior in a loved one using heroin, including those listed below. But be mindful that some of these changes are similar to other common problems.

• Self-isolation or being secretive
• Increased or decreased appetite
• Loss of interest in personal hygiene
• Increased sleeping
• Getting easily agitated
• Trouble with finances or asking for money
• Lying and/or stealing from the home
• Social withdrawal or avoiding friends and family
• Shirking life obligations and responsibilities
• Possessing drug paraphernalia
• Engaging in illegal activities

A change in lifestyle habits remains one of the biggest clues someone is on drugs. The changes may happen suddenly or gradually and can go unnoticed even to a keen eye that’s not paying attention.

Psychological Symptoms

These symptoms refer to how the substance affects a person’s mental and emotional state. They are typically seen in people who develop psychological dependence.

• Overpowering cravings
• Paranoia
• Anxiety
• Depression
• Insomnia
• Mood swings

Cognitive Symptoms

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as a brain disorder because of how drugs such as heroin affect brain function. The effects may show up as symptoms such as:

• Memory loss or brain fog
• Trouble with focus or concentration
• Confusion or disorientation
• Difficulty making decisions or solving problems
• Altered perception of reality

Heroin and Drug-Use Paraphernalia

A glaring sign of drug abuse is seeing the substance in the possession of users or catching them in the act of using. Seeing drug use devices are also a dead giveaway. The types of devices may depend on if they’re smoking, snorting, or injecting heroin into their vein. Be on the lookout for devices or paraphernalia such as pipes for smoking, needles for injecting, spoons, lighters, tin foil, and a tourniquet (such as a long strip of elastic band or shoelace) used to tie the hand.

A tourniquet helps them find a vein for injection. You may also notice syringe plungers or burnt tin foil in the trash can. Spoons may also be vanishing without a trace. Neckties and belts may disappear or shoes show up with missing laces. Take note.

The Dangers of Heroin Abuse and Addiction

Heroin maintains its position as a dangerous drug not only because it’s potent and highly addictive but also because of the potential health effects and threat to life. There are also short and long-term effects on the body and brain. Some are irreversible.

Heroin use during pregnancy may lead to a miscarriage. Babies born to women who abuse drugs during pregnancy may have low birth weight and may be physically addicted. This may mean the baby has to go through detox and withdrawal after birth.

The multitude of complications heroin abuse can cause include infectious diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis. This occurs after injecting heroin using a shared needle. Loss of self-control and inhibition during periods of drug intoxication may lead to risky sexual behaviors and may increase the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.

Long-term use may damage the immune system and organs such as the lungs, kidneys, liver, or heart. There is also a higher risk of clogged blood vessels, such as arteries and veins. This further increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

People with a heroin addiction may be more likely to have suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide. Those living with underlying mental conditions, such as depression or borderline personality disorder, may be more at risk. Incidentally, depression is a symptom that may occur during withdrawal and can trigger suicidal thoughts or attempts.

Getting Treatment for Heroin Use Disorder

According to addiction treatment specialists, withdrawing and recovering at a rehab center is one of the safest ways to overcome heroin abuse. Despite this, many people living with addiction have tried to end substance abuse on their own by trying the “cold turkey” method. This is an unsafe method that puts you or your family member’s health at risk.

Once you discover or confirm your loved one is using, it can be surprising or even devastating. Try not to confront, accuse, or argue with a user until you’re sure the signs and symptoms relate to drug abuse and not some other health problem. You may still need to have that “talk” with your relative or friend about what’s going on.

Try to be understanding and not judge, even though you may be deeply concerned. People who are dependent on drugs usually need a support system that will rally around them and help them get the treatment they need.

Types of Heroin Treatment Programs and Therapies

There are heroin addiction treatment centers all across the U.S., and you’re likely to find one in your state. These facilities are set up to cater to individuals from all walks of life who are trying to regain their sobriety. Many of them offer treatment within the following settings:

Residential treatment
• Inpatient rehab
• Outpatient rehab
• Intensive outpatient program (IOP)
• Partial hospitalization program (PHP)

Treatment centers are also staffed with addiction recovery doctors, therapists, and counselors who are certified and trained to help your loved one quit. The type of rehab and treatment plan largely depends on the diagnosis and the individual’s needs. Treatment programs and therapies are usually comprehensive and can include modalities that help address physical and psychological dependence. For example:

Dual-diagnosis treatment
• Behavioral therapy
• Trauma therapy
• Family therapy
• Experiential therapy
• Neurobiofeedback
• 12-step and non-12 step programs
• Medical-assisted treatment (MAT)

Medical-Assisted Treatment

MAT is designed to facilitate detox, a process of removing the drug from the body. Medical detox typically involves close supervision by a physician and administration of medications to help manage withdrawal symptoms in a safe environment. Symptoms usually begin about four to six hours after the last heroin dose. Medication may include those given to treat pain, anxiety, depression, insomnia, mood changes, drug cravings, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Dual-Diagnosis Treatment

Heroin addiction can co-occur with mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or even an eating disorder. In such cases, we refer the client for dual-diagnosis treatment. It simply means treating the substance use and mental disorder at the same time. Doing so increases the chance of recovery and minimizes the risk of relapse. The mental health treatment received as part of dual diagnosis usually includes cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which aims at helping your relative or friend change behaviors, beliefs, and thoughts that encourage drug abuse.

Start Your Recovery Journey at Defining Wellness Centers

We are a drug and alcohol addiction rehab in Brandon, Mississippi. It’s a private location surrounded by nature. We provide customized evidence-based treatment along with cutting-edge biotechnological treatments to men and women of all walks of life. Our goal is to help you or someone you love get the right medical and therapeutic care needed to overcome substance abuse.

Our staff includes board-certified doctors, therapists, and counselors who provide a continuum of care from detox to aftercare in a residential or outpatient setting. Treatment is provided in a safe and compassionate environment. Find out more about us or call 855-790-9303 to speak with an admissions counselor.

Family-owned and operated, Defining Wellness Centers is a true labor of love. My wife Robin and I, along with our children, are deeply passionate about wellness, mental health and addiction treatment.

We are a family, dedicated to helping other families. We created Defining Wellness with two central goals in mind: to share our love, understanding and compassion with clients and to utilize the best health and wellness modalities available today to treat addiction.

Our programs are built on a foundation of proven, evidence-based therapeutic techniques combined with cutting-edge bio-technological treatments, fitness and experiential learning. Our end goal is to provide the support and tools necessary for people become their best selves through emotional wellness and balance.